Interview By Lord Randall
With her fourth long-player—released on March 29 by The Guildwater Group / CEN—Athens, Georgia’s Thayer Sarrano reveals herself to be equal parts shoegaze chanteuse and Gothic Americana troubadour. Wings Alleluia is an album of searching for, finding, and responding to the echoes of the divine within nature and in us all—ethereal yet visceral. Enlightened but rooted, Sarrano sits down to discuss all this and more…
How has the new album been received thus far?
Gosh, I have no idea! I guess I’m still too close to it, because it just came out, and I’ve been on tour a bit before and the whole time from then till now. It’s cool, because focusing on the shows, which have been really good, has kept me from thinking too much about what other people think about the songs.
You recently came off your first tour for the album. How was it? Any memorable experiences?
The Athens show, one of the record release shows in my hometown, was really special. It was one of the times I had a full band, had a choir, a baritone sax player…
Yeah! It’s The Athens Cowboy Choir. It’s a bunch of men, including T Hardy Morris, who do a cappella versions of Old West songs like “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” and stuff like that. They’re really entertaining on their own, but to have them backing me up was fun. There was a local artist there who had a light installation, and after the show, everybody went out on the deck and the choir did some of their stuff outside too.
It was amazing, even aside from it being a chance to show my new songs to my friends and play them with my friends. I’m doing Finster Fest [in Summerville, Georgia], at the end of May, so I’m looking forward to that also. I love the big shows when I have the chance to do them, but the little funky ones have their own special charm.
When Wings Alleluia started to take shape, was there a conscious intent to focus on something you maybe hadn’t previously? Lessons learned from past albums that you knew you wanted to steer clear of?
These songs kind of came to me pretty much produced in my mind. This is the first album where that happened, but I could actually hear how I wanted the rhythm to sound, the tones and textures I was looking for, almost from the start. I knew I wanted to use some tribal beats, little things that weren’t super obvious. We recorded at Mitch Easter’s studio, which is just this excellent studio on his property. [We] kind of lived there for a week. I played bass—what I could—and The Athens Cowboy Choir came out to do some stuff.
Come to think, this album came together pretty quickly from start to finish. For me, I get kind of tunnel vision in the studio. I don’t know if it’s the higher pressure, because songwriting’s free, but there’s a financial element to recording, so I don’t want to waste too much time, just get the job done. I won’t just shrug off a bad take, and I know exactly how I want the finished product to sound—not so much in the mix, more in the emotion conveyed—but I think I learned to loosen up a little this time, since the songs had come so freely.
From 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds to Reuben And The Dark, Songs: Ohia, Son Of The Velvet Rat, or Sun Kil Moon, what do you think it is about sparse, ethereal music that’s so captivating?
I guess it is that space—the space is where we exist. In that gap between breaths and sound is where the music happens. That’s part of why I enjoy meditation. The more defined I try to get, the busier my thoughts get, the less clear things become. For me, I’ve always felt very close to this echo—call it the divine, nature, whatever you choose. How this echo presents itself in my music—which I hope it always does and that people can hear it—is different every time, sometimes different every night. I’ve drenched myself in reverb, sometimes it’s just been me and an acoustic guitar, but for me to communicate, I just feel like I need to be honest about where I’m coming from, whatever facet shows itself in the moment.
That said, there’s always been a spiritual element to your work, with the Psalms reference in the title Lift Your Eyes to the Hills to “Jump in the Water” and “I Miss My Lord” and certainly on Wings Alleluia. What was your upbringing like, and would you say there’s still a spiritual compass in your life that you attempt to follow?
It’s kind of who I am, and so it can’t help but come out through the music. I’ve had this spiritual thing since I was a child, and, at the risk of sounding like the typical Southern background, I did grow up in a religious family. My father was an Episcopal priest, and we lived in seminary when he was in school. Those Episcopal hymns spoke to me early on, as they tend toward a lot of minor chords and are repetitive but in a powerful way. When I was little, I didn’t really know the theology at all, but the music of the church struck me as very beautiful and filling. To this day, my dream is to live in a house with lots of wood and stained-glass windows, which, at least a little of that dream was probably born then—and, too, I’ve done a lot of searching, and I understand a lot more things now, but I’m still growing, still searching. However, there was never a point where I officially left the Episcopal church.
As far as “I Miss My Lord,” I was on a tour bus with the band I was playing with at the time, and I think it was after a show or something, but I was just kind of by myself in an area of the bus. I was feeling this—disconnect, I guess is the way to say it, one of those times where you wonder if anyone’s actually listening to you. I was missing my family, my friends and bandmates back home in Athens. One of the other band members came in and asked what was wrong, and the first thing that came to my mind was “I miss my Lord.”
In “Grace Goes On,” there’s a strange instrument that sounds almost like something out of Tom Waits’ arsenal. Chimeatron?
Yes! That was something that was at Mitch’s studio. It’s this kind of bell [or] chime simulator thing, and when we picked it up and heard what came out of it, we knew we had to use it on a couple things. Between that and the grand piano, I might just have to sneak over and live in the studio, just discovering things.
Any plans for the rest of 2019?
Shows, hopefully a couple good tours, more music.